‘World’s oldest birchbark canoe’ Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following an interesting story surrounding the discovery of the “world’s oldest birchbark canoe.” The canoe, discovered last year in a storage shed on a large estate in Cornwall, England, was shipped across the big pond in 1788 by Lt. John Enys, a British officer on his return from Canada. Enys served in the British Army and traveled extensively throughout New York and Canada in the late 1700s. It is interesting to note that his travel journals were published by the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake in 1976. The canoe, which is believed to be more than 250 years old, had been damaged while in storage. Reports indicate that the canoe is to be repatriated to Canada later this year, where it will be restored and displayed at the Canadian Canoe Museum. The Cornwall discovery served to reignite interest in the “Grandfather Canoe,” a 24-foot cargo canoe that had been considered to be the oldest surviving birchbark canoe in the world when it was discovered in 2001. According to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Grandfather Canoe was built in New Brunswick in the 1820s and was owned by British Lieutenant-Governor Sir Howard Douglas in 1824. It was later sold to British Capt. Stepney St. George, who shipped the canoe in 1852 to his residence in Galway. Following his death in 1847, the canoe was donated to the National University of Ireland in Galway. The canoe remained unattended and gathering dust on display in a hallway at the University until 2001, when it was nearly tossed in the trash. Fortunately, a visiting professor recognized its historical significance and saved it from the dump. Soon after, the Grandfather Canoe, which featured etchings of flowers and fiddleheads common to the Maliseet canoe builders of New Brunswick, became the center of a repatriation controversy. First Nations authorities mounted a public battle seeking to return the canoe to Canada with claims that the canoe may have been taken from the colony. In May of 2007, the university shipped the canoe to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa for restoration. In the summer of 2009, the National University of Ireland, “recognizing the cultural significance of the artifact to the Maliseet people,” agreed to repatriate the canoe to Canada. It remains on display in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John.
The Adirondacks oldest canoes After learning about the discovery of the old birch bark canoes in England and Ireland, I wondered if there were any such boats in the Adirondacks. Accordingly, my first call went to Hallie Bond, curator of boats at The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Bond explained that most of the birchbark canoes found on display in area camps were likely not constructed locally. Most were from Canada, where the birch trees were larger and First Nation builders were plentiful. Near Montreal, there was actually a factory that produced them. Many local camp owners purchased their canoes while on hunting trips to Canada. The birchbark canoe on display at the museum is the authentic handiwork of an Abenaki Indian by the name of Daniel J. Emmet. The Rockefeller family of Ampersand Lake, just up the road from Coreys, donated the canoe. Also known as Indian Dan, Emmet was a local guide and a friend of Noah Rondeau. He spent his summers in Coreys, weaving black ash packbaskets and building small, birchbark canoes in the traditional style. Possibly the most well known local birchbark canoe builder in recent years is former forest ranger Gary Hodgson, of Lake Placid. I spoke with Hodgson, who explained that birchbark canoes were never as popular in the Adirondacks as they were in Canada, for a variety of reasons. More common were canoes constructed of elm bark, which was much more readily available or dugout canoes that were commonly used on larger lakes and left on site. There have been a number of dugout canoes discovered in the region over the years, including a few that are much older than the Canadian birchbark canoes. In the 1950s, divers uncovered a dugout in Lake Placid that was donated to the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota. According to John Fadden, the museum’s curator, although the dugout bears evidence of an ax mark on one end, it has never been dated. Dugouts have also been found in other local waters including Twin Ponds south of Malone, Debar Pond and Meacham Lake. However, according to Bond, the oldest dugout discovered in the region was found submerged in Lake Ozonia, near St. Regis Falls. The boat, which is now in the Akwesasne Museum, was radiocarbon dated to 1584 (plus or minus 80 years). Despite the fact that it was only dated to the 1500s, local evidence exists of stone celts and bone gouges that were used for boat construction. These tools date from as early as 3000 to 1000 B.C.
Photo by Joe Hackett
Birchbark canoes remain an iconic fixture of the lifestyles of indigenous people throughout the northeastern United States and Canada. This photo features a museum-quality reproduction of an Iroquois canoe.